Tom Fleming spoke to Hilary Hall about her blooming career
Cultivating a lifetime
If your business or charity organisation needs a sprinkling of gold dust to help it thrive and develop with the times, look no further than Hilary Hall. She has a rather large pot of it.
For Hilary, who never had any formal business training, was the driving force behind the restoration of Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Glasshouses in the 1980s, which saved what is now one of the city’s foremost visitor attractions from almost certain closure. She went on to transform the Midland Association of Restaurants, Caterers, Hotels and Entertainment (MARCHE) into a flourishing organisation with a national voice. Two decades on, she is still weaving her magic: her involvement in last year’s Birmingham’s entry in the Heart of England in Bloom competition saw it scoop a gold award, named overall category winner and nominated to represent the region at this year’s national finals.
Its success was undoubtedly due to the bringing together and interweaving of individual displays and features in separate locations – including a floral handbag and high-heeled shoe and green roof on the ICC – to create a vibrant, coherent City Centre Floral Trail.
As chair of the CCFT steering group, Hilary played a major role in making the vision a blooming reality. Her organisational skills, honed over many years, ensured effective collaboration between the many partners and voluntary groups working with Birmingham City Centre Partnership on the entry.
This year, with a national award at stake, Hilary knows she has her work cut out even more as the categories have been changed. “Birmingham has been entering Britain in Bloom in several guises for five to six years, with small entries such as features around the Jewellery Quarter,” Hilary says. “But last year they wanted to pull it together and do one for the whole city. “When I was asked to become chair, I thought Britain in Bloom was all hanging baskets, but I soon discovered hanging baskets were a relatively small part of it and that it was more about providing sustainable planting and community involvement – very much more exciting.
“This year has provided a bigger challenge for us because the categories have been changed, so we had to enter a new one. It’s 50 per cent horticulture, 25 per cent community and 25 per cent environmental. Each part is broken down into six different strands and we have to tick every box of every strand. So that’s why it’s as challenging as it’s exciting.”
The overall theme of the competition is, like last year, “local roots” and Birmingham’s entry will reflect the legacy of entrepreneur Matthew Boulton to coincide with the bicentenary of his death and the 50th anniversary of the Mini. New and innovative environmental features include “bee hotels” – part of a scientific project to boost the dwindling population of Mason bees – a “dry” garden and a wild flower meadow planted by primary schoolchildren.
“Some of the things we’re doing this year are absolutely brilliant,” she says. “In a village, it’s easy to see what a community is like – it’s harder in a big city like Birmingham, where there are lots of different elements: a business community, inner city schools, restaurants and places of worship being just a few examples. So our entry is about what you make of a community like this. It’s a great opportunity for the public sector and other groups to work together.
“It’s also a great opportunity to show that, while floral arrangements are lovely to have in a city, we can also green up Birmingham with sustainable, low-maintenance planters, using plants such as palms and agapanthus, that are equally attractive.”
She gets involved in all aspects of the task in hand. “I help with the strategy side but I’ll also roll my sleeves up and sit on the floor cutting things!”
Born in Birmingham, Hilary grew up in a business environment: her father was managing director of software group Kalamazoo. But a car accident when she was a teenager meant she missed sitting her A Levels and going to university. “I worked in various organisations doing a bit of everything but I got a real buzz out of making things happen. My involvement with the Botanical Gardens started when my eldest child was in her pram.”
That was in 1978, when Hilary became a Friend and, later, chair of the Friends. As a consequence, I became a Trustee in 1981 and was involved in the major restoration programme during the ‘80s, including setting up our shop and getting it going. From 1988, I was chair of the development committee, which was responsible for lots of projects. The first was to build the cafe with sponsorship from Typhoo. We then built the Lawn Aviary entirely through sponsorship.”
The Bonsai and Japanese gardens and study centre followed swiftly. “What I did was to spend all the money everybody else had made! But the Gardens needed investment to bring them up to the standard they are now.”
Four years ago, Hilary became chairman of the Trustees and is still ensuring the Gardens move with the times. “The Gardens are a fantastic Victorian inheritance but the world is different now. With all visitor attractions like this, education is the raison d’etre and they have to have money to make them work. Everything that’s happened in the past has to be re-thought through and that’s a big challenge. We all know we’ve got to engage with children and doing that in the 21st century is very different from how it was done in the past. So, for example, we have a Green Man interactive learning facility.”
Hilary’s association with the Botanical Gardens led to her becoming chief executive of MARCHE in 1992. The association’s aims are to raise standards, improve customer satisfaction and maximise business opportunities for the region’s hospitality sector.
“As with the Botanical Gardens, the world has changed very much in the hospitality sector. MARCHE is one of the oldest associations of its kind but it used to be a bit of a gentlemen’s lunch club, and that doesn’t really exist anymore. We work with Marketing Birmingham and the NEC Group amongst others. We see ourselves as an organisation that interfaces between people who operate in the sector and other organisations. It’s a sort of conduit.”
Hilary sits on the West Midlands Business Council and is chair of a training company and deputy chairman of another not-for-profit training organisation for people who may never have been in employment. Yet still she has the energy to embark on a new business project: setting up a company called Scriptorum to provide online support services to the legal sector. “It’s an innovative idea – encouraging legal teams to work in a greener way; minimising the journeys they make and the paper they use.”
Adds Hilary: “I decided I had one more project in me before I reached retirement age – and this is it!”